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My first foray into the world of con coverage did not disappoint; Fan Expo Philadelphia blew my nerdy, horror-loving mind.

The Force was with everyone this year at my first Fan Expo Philadelphia, held on the national weekend celebrating the global Star Wars phenomenon.

Beginning with an official fan meetup at Federal Donuts with beats from DJ Awesomeus Prime, the night wasn’t totally packed but was off to an energetic start. The staff was courteous and helpful, and security seemed pretty tight as all bags were checked and even props were examined outside the venue so no one could sneak in anything dangerous in disguise.

Maps were plentiful on the floor and distributed dutifully to all attendees, making navigation of the large venue more of a breeze. “Con Survival” was a panel you could start out with showing you how to make the best of your convention experience. Pairing nicely with the maps was the app to create an accessible and easy way to navigate your experience that made finding attractions easier amongst the throngs of people and masses of vendors.

The vendor offerings included stuffed animals, original art (which I was not allowed to photograph, sorry), lightsabers, costumes, and more.

Photo ops and autographs ran throughout the event, and the weekend was thunderous as people gathered for their Star Wars and National Lampoon meetups. In the Community Section, one could also find exhibits devoted to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Cobra Commander, and more. Panels for larger celebrities were also upstairs. “Mythbusting with Adam Savage” to begin an astounding weekend of programming.

Upstairs in the theaters, larger panels provided opportunities for fans to hear some featured stars discuss their work.

Star Wars dominated again, with adult light saber training (which was too popular for this writer to get it on) as well as a great light saber battle to find the Chosen One, light saber spinning, and Padawan panels to get the basics of light saber fighting down (as well as make it accessible to younger fans).

With Star Wars being the overwhelming theme, daily shows and workshops helped Padawans and Jedis test their skills. Workshops for costume combat and original stories played out in panel rooms and on the floor, which meant more audience engagement, and stage combat was shown off at its finest.

Rosario Dawson and Hayden Christiansen discussed light v. dark and all things Ashoka and Star Wars past and present at a riveting evening panel followed by the Dark Side Burlesque event for fans ages 18+.

The Cosplay Red Carpet ran daily, with hundreds of fans showing off their best cosplay for the convention and allowing many a creative shot of some of pop culture’s favorite icons.

I was especially impressed with the Silent Hill nurse cosplay. Whoever was behind the mask had the walk down perfectly, and I have the skin-crawling video to prove it. 

Every day, meetups were held for fans of Dragon Ball Z, Ghostbusters, anime, horror, and Marvel. Fans could indulge their inner nerd with other fans and show off their costumes for other genre devotees.

Many were decked out in their best outfits, and people-watching was elevated to a sport.

Panels and events ranged from the educational to the fully interactive.

The only pitfall was that there were so many options for so many blocks of the day that sometimes you had to sacrifice programming, like “The Backstory of Beetlejuice,” which quickly filled to standing room only, or “Anatomy of a Vampire,” hosted by Dr. Lena Nazarei, vampire author, Podcaster, and YouYube host, which conflicted with another panel I was set on attending.

Other panels that were more up my horror-based alley were the “Top 10 Evil Animated Villains” and a fun audience-based panel titled “Can you Survive Five Nights at Freddy’s?” The game was simple, and I let the kids play so I wouldn’t ruin a good time. A security guard sits with their back facing the audience, and four taggers try to sneak up on stage to poke the security guard. But if they get the flashlight, they go back to the back of the room!

Other panels were equally interactive, with virtual trivia rooms set for 70 real-life teams ready to do the Vicious Villains Trivia. (I lost pretty badly, but hey, it wasn’t horror villains.)

While all this was happening, a Japanese arcade was available for the public to play in. It had scooters, fighting games, and a very popular original Japanese “Dance, Dance Revolution” game that kept players’ feet moving fast.

After adventures in foreign gaming, I got the chance to sit in on the Charmed Ones panel, which highlighted Holly Marie Combs and Rose McGowan. They talked about their fondness for the show, how their memories are kept alive in the fan base, and how grateful they are that fans continue to watch. They also dispelled myths about the controversy with Shannon Dougherty, discussed their willingness to do a Charmed movie, and answered many fan questions and theories regarding witches, the show, and themselves.

Voice actors took center stage, with panels showcasing film, television, and gaming’s most prominent voices.

Voices from a horror series our readers will be familiar with, such as Five Nights at Freddy’s, were present. This included Kellen Goff, who took to the panel to describe his experiences with voice acting, his time with the series, and his public battle with autism.

Inspired by the great Dee Bradley Baker, Goff gave me a seamless transition to the Fairly Odd Panel, where Butch Hartman, Grey DeLisle, and Dee Bradley Baker talked about the show and voice acting and fielded questions.

Baker’s most salient points about his time in voice acting are that first, one must learn to be a trained actor before becoming a voice actor and that making up whacky character voices isn’t enough.

DeLisle did her best to put a wrench in this theory, demonstrating many a character she’s voiced moving from Vicky of The Fairly Odd Parents to Azula of the original animated Avatar: The Last Airbender series and more, making it all seem effortless as she put on the show fans were all secretly hoping for.

The voices of Master Chief and Cortana also showed off their skills in a panel devoted to voice acting in gaming. Unfortunately, these panels were so crowded that I never made it up to the mic with my questions. We will never know why Denzel Crocker’s ears are on his neck or the relevance of some of Halo’s greatest lines.

With my time in the non-spooky sections taking up most of my days, I had to take some detours to find the men behind some of our favorite horror programming and educational exhibits. 

When I first approached him, Tim Jacobus was organizing his many posters and covers, setting out little prints of some of the most prominent Goosebumps cover art.

A gentleman and a scholar, Jacobus is legendary in our childhood horror literature.

Having illustrated nearly 100 covers during his time with R.L. Stein, he has done over 300 book covers and paintings for various books, novels, series, and even video games!

While Jacobus’ panel highlighted more of his art and gave him a chance to talk to a bubbling crowd about the books we grew up on and shaped us into horror fans, I got to ask him a couple of questions about his inspirations, personal favorites, and the little intimate touches he puts into his art to make it perfect for kids, but just scary enough to keep the lights on.

Friendly, mild-mannered, and open to anything, Jacobus was happy to make time for me to flip through his art and tell him how many nights I lay awake reading those books. He opened up about Goosebumps’ heyday when the titles were being churned out rapidly and often and told me that R.L. Stein was expected to get a new book out every four to six weeks, creating a demanding schedule for the crew.

I asked how that affected his process as an artist receiving plot descriptions, and he said he used to get pages to work from to design the covers, then paragraphs, then mere sentences to design the proper cover art. A quick Google search will verify that the early 1990s was a time of factory production for Goosebumps’ writer and lead artist, creating record sales and numbers in such a short amount of time.

When asked what his all-time favorite cover was, Jacobus laughed and said, “It varies from day to day,” pointing at the cover for “Welcome to Dead House” as one of the recent covers he had revisited. He said that of all his artworks, rotate into which are his favorites. No one piece of art stands above the rest on any given day.

Being as the books were horror for kids, Jacobus toed the line between terrifying and terrific, tailoring the books’ madcap style with his art and making sure the kids weren’t too traumatized (I had confided in him that “Night of the Living Dummy” had kept me awake many a night).

When asked what he does uniquely for each cover, Jacobus said he takes joy in making cute or mundane things creepy as he gestured to a bright yellow rabid hamster drawing that would have been cuddly if it weren’t so menacing.

As for his inspirations, I was shocked at what had inspired the hundreds of memorable covers: the creative and iconic album artwork of the 70’s and 80’s vinyl covers. Covers like that of the band Iron Maiden and their colorful, poppy, and in-your-face style brought about the vibrant and disturbing covers we see today on our shelves.

Jacobus signed a print of “Say Cheese and Die,” my personal favorite, and told my mom she was “no dummy” on a copy of my most traumatizing art.

As I continue down a lively Artist Alley, mostly populated by comic book artists, I come to Jeff Brennan, sitting quietly in his chair, surrounded by prints and storyboards from many of our favorite cartoons.

Friendly as ever when I approached him as he drew a print of Courage the Cowardly Dog, he invited me to stand and watch him sketch, finishing my favorite little character and conversing as the literal ink dried.

On board since the pilot, Brennan was the main illustrator on Cartoon Network’s hit children’s horror series Courage the Cowardly Dog and can put other impressive references to his name like The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, and Dragontales! He also created the independent comic book character “Cyber Girl L.E.E.T.A.” and began his career by inking the background for DC comics such as Superman.

So nervous to meet him that I forgot how to spell his name even though it was on a banner in front of me; I was awestruck as I watched the pencil and marker glide across the page and managed to get a couple of questions in as the master artist penned original works and talked to many fans from my age group squealing how Brennan brought their childhood to life — including the traumatizing “King Ramses Curse” episode that decreed “Return the Slab!”

Brennan dishes that show creator John Dilworth himself voices the title ghoul (figures that the creator would personally be in on the most intimidating episode).

When asked if the show was supposed to be a horror gateway for kids, Brennan didn’t hesitate in saying, “Yes.” He said obviously the monsters and crazy situations weren’t too over the top but it did serve as a gateway for kids to get interested in the horror genre.

As a follow-up, I asked if a Courage movie would ever be a possibility. While Brennan seemed intrigued by the idea and believed the show could fit a movie format, I doubt we will ever get a full-length film for the series.

Regarding commissions, I had to ask for a personal favorite, as my family loves the character Eustice, which brought a laugh from Brennan. “Most people want Muriel,” he mused as he pulled up a picture of the old farmer on his phone, balancing it on his knee as he gracefully began to sketch the lines of the crotchety old man on his other leg, a balancing act that left me stunned.

(Eustice isn’t much of a fan favorite, but the drawing was beautiful, and Brennan keeps his pencil lines so you can trace the journey from the request to the final product.)

Finally, I came away with a magical little tidbit about the show’s setting of “Middle of Nowhere,” Kansas. I asked Brennan, why “Nowhere”? It’s not all that fun to draw, after all. The answer was painfully simple and poetic, “Because anything and nothing can happen in nowhere,” making it the perfect location for some of the insane things that happen to Courage and his family.

If you ever see Brennan at a local convention, make sure to say hi. He’s friendly, talented, and knowledgeable about his craft — an absolute must-see for animation fans. And in case he’s reading this, my family has already talked about my meeting him for hours; it was a childhood dream come to life for us all.

In the Community Area, there is a small booth filled with costumes and props headed by a humble man who is keeping watch by the name of James Azrael, founder of the HSPPA (The Horror and Sci-fi Prop Preservation Association).

After admiring the Hellraising costumes and Resident Evil practical effects, I approached Azrael, happy to introduce himself, and asked if he would be okay with answering some questions about this exhibit.

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